Introductory Note:

How can we welcome God’s Advent in a way that produces holy joy in our lives? Perhaps we can imitate Francis of Assisi. In the year 1223, Francis was inspired to invent a way for his neighbors to “recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem.” Richard Foster tells the heart-warming story of this first live re-enactment of the Nativity.

Manger scenes and Nativity plays are common in our experience today, but reading about this first one nearly 800 years ago may bring fresh appreciation for the sacramental potential of this tradition. A live Nativity with characters and scenery—whether staged humbly by children or authentically crafted by experts—helps us draw near to the original event through our imaginations. We rest our gaze on a flesh-and-blood baby to help us picture our LORD in the flesh. We can see and smell and feel the hay, the animals, and the chilly night air. Who can help but smile when partaking in this embodied form of contemplation? We rejoice with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the angels of heaven. With all creation we celebrate Immanuel—God-with-us. God still offers us his presence. May we rejoice in the assurance and experience of his nearness now.

—Grace Pouch

Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Holy joy is one of the most common marks of those who walk in the power of the Spirit, and Francis and his merry band possessed it in abundance. Their joy must have been a wonder to watch; just reading about it quickens the heart. These young troubadours of the Lord went from town to town, inebriated with holy joy. Even when Francis stood in front of the pope, he all but danced. Thomas of Celano wrote of this event noting that Francis spoke with such great fervor of spirit, that, not being able to contain himself for joy … he moved his feet as though he were dancing.”1

My favorite of the stories that illustrate the joy in the Spirit felt by Francis and his band centers on Francis putting together the very first Christmas crèche in the little town of Greccio. (Manger scenes are so common today that it is hard for us to imagine the feelings that must have accompanied that original experience. The story is preserved for us in Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis.)

The year was 1223. Francis by now had resigned as the head of the order that bears his name and was three years away from his death. The Christmas feast was nearing, and in delightful spontaneity Francis declared, I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem.” So in merry abandon he found a nearby cave and made the necessary arrangements. Just imagine the mystery and intrigue as the people of Greccio wondered what Francis was up to in that cave at the edge of town. Then Christmas Eve — the day of joy … the time of great rejoicing” — arrived. The people of the neighborhood lit candles and torches to light up that night” and made their way to the cave with glad hearts.” Standing at the edge of the cave, they saw revealed by their lights a tiny baby in a manger — a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth and warmed by the hot, steamy breath of a half-dozen cows and sheep. What in the world?! 

Then Francis appeared, and he saw it and was glad.” Ah, now the people caught the point: Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.” They were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang … and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing.” Francis stood over the manger scene, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness.” Francis sang to the people in a sweet voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice.” He preached, speaking charming words.” 

Then a member of the crowd had a vision that he shared with those gathered around this simple manger scene. His vision was of a little child lying in a manger, lifeless. But in the vision Francis went up and touched the child and the child awakened as from a deep sleep.” The lesson of the vision was not lost on the assembled crowd, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.” What a reverent, jubilant, solemn celebration! And what a wonder-filled pageant for illiterate people who did not have the luxury of reading and rereading the story for themselves. On that night the joy of Christmas became palpable to the people of Greccio. Each observer, Thomas noted, returned to his home with holy joy.”2

  1. St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, ed. Marion H. Habig (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), pp. 289 – 90. ↩︎
  2. St. Francis of Assisi, pp. 299 – 301. Many other stories of Francis’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death are readily available to you, so I will not go into them here. I recommend to you Thomas of Celano’s First Life and Second Life of St. Francis (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1963), St. Bonaventure’s Major Life of St. Francis in St. Francis of Assisi (pp. 627 – 787), Brother Ugolino’s The Little Flowers of St. Francis, and any number of the popular biographies of St. Francis. ↩︎

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